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ShastaYama 2006 Show Review

Mt. Shasta Echoes With Sounds of Taiko

September 2006
Hokubei Mainichi (San Francisco) & Nikkei West (Sacramento)
by Will Newman

Jeanne Mercer, Russel Baba Photo: Bob Morris

Well-performed taiko (Japanese drums) is not experienced with the ears or the eyes. It is an experience involving all the senses ... and more. When properly performed, taiko drumming is felt deep inside the body and transcends ones normal concert expectations. It is felt in the heart.

Nearly a thousand concertgoers were treated to that experience this past Saturday, August 5, in the shadow of Mount Shasta when Shasta Taiko hosted San Francisco Taiko Dojo at the second annual ShastaYama taiko concert.

This concert marked the reunion of taiko Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka -- founder of San Francisco Taiko Dojo -- with former students Russel Baba and Jeanne Mercer. Baba and Mercer started training with Tanaka-sensei in 1972 and later founded Shasta Taiko in 1985.

Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka Photo: Bob Hsiang

Grand Master Tanaka is the most influential musician in the development of traditional and modern taiko in America. He was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently awarded its prestigious Foreign Minister Commondation for Grand Master Tanaka's "significant efforts in promoting the Japanese art of taiko."

Shasta Taiko fans who follow this remarkable performance troupe are familiar with the high-spirited energy, flair, and dramatic style that have typified their past performances. But Shasta Taiko's performance at ShastaYama was a marked departure from this exuberant style. Although Saturday's performance was still deeply moving and technically very strong, Baba and Mercer chose to present a quieter and significantly more subtle performance than they have in the past.

Shasta Taiko Photo: Bob Morris

Their performances for this concert were strongly influenced by jazz, which is not surprising given both of their musical backgrounds. Jeanne Mercer has carried her taiko expertise over to the modern drum set, performing on traps and taiko at various jazz venues with Russel and other jazz musicians such as drummers Art Blakey and Eddie Moore, violinist Michael White, and pianist Andrew Hill. Russel Baba is a renowned jazz musician who has performed and toured with esteemed artists jazz musicians drummer Eddie Moore, violinist Michael White, and pianist Andrew Hill.

In addition to the small Shasta Taiko troupe, Baba, Mercer, were joined by their son Masato Baba and his longtime friend Shoji Kameda. In the past, these two young men have provided much of the dramatic spark to Shasta Taiko's performances. But for this performance, they, too, adopted a more quiet, subtle style.

Shoji Kameda, Jeanne Mercer, Masato Baba Photo: Bob Hsiang

This overall quieter tone by Shasta Taiko is not to say it was disappointing. Quite the contrary. Each piece strengthened the impression of performers who have matured in their skills and who are confident in being able to express themselves as easily in nuance as they are in bravado.

While the San Francisco Taiko Dojo performances would later transport the audience into a cultural expression that was strongly Japanese, each piece performed by Shasta Taiko borrowed heavily from diverse cultures and blended the sounds into a richly colored tapestry.

"Viewpoints" -- a piece composed by Baba -- featured him on the sax with taiko accompaniment. His playing was fluid and graceful, with him 'pronouncing' each note as if it were a syllable in an important speech he was delivering. And indeed, this piece and the entire Shasta Taiko performance, was a discussion, a discussion of the ability to blend cultures while still remaining distinct in each culture's identity. Their performance was a powerful, very gentle call for peace and understanding in a time when the entire world appears to be turning away from sanity.

The cross-cultural direction of Shasta Taiko's performance tonight was reflected in three very powerful and very different dance sequences. On the opening number Kokon, Toru Watanabe (from Warabiza, one of Japan's foremost dance performance groups) performed a very traditional dance using subtle, stylized movements with a fan to punctuate his movements. The taiko in the background, instead of providing the rhythm for his movements, acted as counterpoint, leaving his movements distinct and visually exciting.

Michelle Fujii, Toru Watanabe Photo: Bob Hsiang

On "Itsuka" Michelle Fujii (artistic co-director of Portland Taiko), Yuta Kato (Portland Taiko), and Masato Baba performed a dance based on a Japanese folk dance. While containing many traditional elements, this dance emphasized the movement and visual aspects of taiko in ways that felt impressionistic rather than strictly traditional.

The final piece Shasta Taiko performed, "Full Circle" by Jeanne Mercer, began with Masato Baba playing a didgeridoo and Kameda performing throat singing while Julie Bennett performed a beautifully executed, free form dance in a stunning dragon dance costume created by Tom O'Hara.

Julie Bennett - Shasta Taiko Photo: Bob Hsiang

Shasta Taiko was joined on "Full Circle" by Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka. His presence provided a link between the more subtle work of Shasta Taiko and the explosive, more traditional performance of San Francisco Taiko Dojo and Grand Master Tanaka that was to follow in the second half of the show.

For anybody who has seen Shasta Taiko in the past, Master Tanaka's influence on them could be understood from the first strike of the drum when San Francisco Taiko Dojo took the stage.

After the opening Shinto prayer for world peace, Tanaka and San Francisco Taiko Dojo exploded in a fast beat, exuberant performance of a piece entitled "Hiryu San Dan Gaeshi." The energy of the piece never let down.

Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka & San Francisco Taiko Dojo Photo: Bob Morris

This piece -- and each of hte others San Francisco Taiko Dojo performed -- made one thing clear. This troupe was there to entertain and have fun. And indeed they did.

Tanaka performed on a variety of instruments throughout the evening including what could be described as Japanese cowbells (though much more melodious). However, he was never dominant nor domineering in his presence. He readily let other performers take center stage. But this is not to say his presence was not felt throughout the evening.

San Francisco Taiko Dojo Photo: Bob Hsiang

While the troupe's performance felt spontaneous in its enthusiasm and exuberance, every move, every drum stroke was carefully choreographed and rehearsed exhaustingly. It is only through such hard work and extensive practice that such a large group of performers can come across as so loose and spontaneous.

Grand Master Tanaka spoke briefly to the audience after the first number, explaining what the troupe would be performing. This proved to be a wise strategy since each subsequent piece followed quickly into the next. The entire San Francisco Taiko Dojo performance felt much like a play with individual acts, each separate but tied together with a common thread.

Russel Baba and Jeanne Mercer joined Grand Master Tanaka on "Frontier Jam Session" for a reunion of student and master.

Baba and Mercer's respect for their former sensei was clearly evident on this collaboration. Never overly flashy in their own performances, these two outstanding performers demonstrated the utmost skill and musicianship but never once did anything to take focus away from Tanaka.

San Francisco Taiko Dojo's signature piece is called "Tsunami" and is performed at the end of their performance. "Tsunami" is aptly named. It is pure drumming that starts out strong and builds to a crescendo.

It then falls back to relative quiet for a brief time, then building again. Each subsequent rise in strength and power goes beyond the previous crescendo until the power and force is almost unbearable.

Masato Baba, Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka, Yuta Kato Photo: Bob Hsiang

"Tsunami" was an excellent end to a powerful, entertaining, and inspiring evening of taiko from Grand Master Tanaka, San Francisco Taiko Dojo, Russel Baba, Jeanne Mercer, and Shasta Taiko.

The evening was produced by Mario Rubino and Shasta Mountain Playhouse and sponsored by the the Mount Shasta Chamber of Commerce, Mt. Shasta Recreation District, the Celebration Foundation, and various donors and businesses. The one technical glitch in the positioning of a stage light was quickly resolved. Other than that, it was a flawless evening technically and an entertaining experience people will speak about for a long time.